The leaders of Hamilton County’s Mental Health Court held a heart-warming open house Friday afternoon and it was announced that just since February, the creation has saved the county over $3 million in incarceration costs. But to hear County Mayor Jim Coppinger or Judge Don Poole tell it, that’s not what is important.
“Soon after the court started, a kind, quiet man I’ll call James started coming every afternoon. He fit in fine and only missed once when he had a diabetes problem. About a year and a half later, Anna (Protano-Biggs, the executive director) called to inform me James had died,” the judge said.
So at the next meeting of the Mental Health Court, Judge Poole quietly announced to a crowd of about 60 people the sad news and remarked that the last 18 months had probably been the best of James' life, having no idea how right he was, James, it was later learned, had been in jails and prisons for all of his life.
“Not for bad crimes … mostly for 90 days, 11-29 … but for over 50 years he cycled through one jail after another. In court that afternoon it was a little somber when about halfway through, a lady came through the door no one knew and asked if she could address the court. She had tears in her eyes and I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
It turns out she was James' sister and, after following his life of struggles, she wanted to thank the Mental Health Court for the happiest year and a half her brother ever spent. “That’s what we do … save people’s lives,” said the judge. “This is what justice provides.”
As he spoke, I stood with Steve Smith, Hamilton County’s Public Defender, and remembered the day in his office when he opened my eyes to the fact almost 40 percent of those in the county jail – right now, this minute – must take psychotropic drugs. “These people don’t need to be in jail. They shouldn’t be in jail, but it’s the last stop.”
Steve and Anna, a British-born gem, are the reason the county saved $3 million. They are the reason Mayor Coppinger found $300,000 in seed money. And when Judge Poole volunteered to oversee the Mental Health Court, there are now almost 100 people who haven’t returned to the county lock-up.
“What happens is an unstable patient doesn’t take their medicine, does something foolish and the county jail is the only place to take them,” Protano-Biggs explained. “Eventually they get back on their meds and live a relatively normal life until they quit taking their medicine again, do something else that gets them in jail, and the cycle starts all over.”
So Steve Smith started badgering the mayor, explaining a Mental Health Court would provide accountability, social workers, and health-care providers. He sold Coppinger on the fact it would relieve the relentless costs of housing someone who is suffering in a maximum-security setting. (Hamilton County spends $85,000 every day in corrections costs.)
“Steve showed me a win-win situation but what I am most proud of is what this is doing for our citizens,” said Coppinger, mindful of the entire families that are affected when a brother, a mother, or a wife struggles with a treatable disease. “This allows the over-sight that assures these patients can function in our society. I wish we’d started this years ago.”
The county has Drug Court that works much the same way and now Smith and Protano-Biggs are thinking about a Veterans Court and a better way to care for Chattanooga’s homeless population. “Many times you’ll find mental illness and the homeless overlap. We have veterans with PTSD who we can do a better job treating,” Judge Poole said. “To me the biggest reward is helping another person. I really enjoy the Mental Health Court, and as we go along it will only get better.”
Sessions Judge Lila Statom is now involved and the court is growing in size. The cost savings are incredible and cities across the country are offering “specialty courts” that deal with solutions instead of problems. “We have one case where a guy has cycled 60 times … that’s a quarter-million dollars.”
Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw was at the Friday gathering, his presence a reminder today’s children are under more stress than ever before, as was Alex McVeagh, a special judge in Sessions Court. “We honored (Sessions Judge) Clarence Shattuck earlier today for sitting on the bench long before Alex was born,” Poole quipped.